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Friday, January 11, 2008

Harley Is Back On The Mantle

When I was little, my grandparents always had a ceramic horse and buggy on their mantle above the fireplace. Over the years, the horse (named Harley), was knocked over enough times that he had a broken leg, a missing ear and busted pieces on his buggy.

Every once in a while, the pieces would get reattached with super glue so that Harley could maintain his rightful place atop of the mantle in all his majesty. But was the horse and buggy all that attractive or valuable? Not really. What was the purpose of keeping Harley on the mantle?

Wisconsin's game against Illinois last night was all about putting the ornament back on the mantle. Even though the Badgers have clearly taken the Fighting Illini's place in the upper echelon of league powers, the mantle had been missing something in Madison.

Here came Illinois, a mere 8-7 entering Thursday, carrying their own three-game home losing streak. Yet, the very same team was riding a two-game winning streak in Madison. In fact, Illinois is the only Big Ten school to beat Bo Ryan at the Kohl Center!

Some things never change in the Big Ten. Illinois (8-8, 0-3) still gave Wisconsin (13-2, 3-0) a run for its money. With 9:35 left to play, there were the Illini, down only three points. They severely out-rebounded the Badgers (33-24) and shot the lights out from 3-point land (60%). The result? Offensively-challenged Illinois put up 60 points on UW!

But all was not lost ... far from it in fact.

Trevon Hughes finally looked like his pre-injury self, slicing to finish strong at the hoop and being disruptive defensively on the perimeter. Despite the 60 points allowed, Wisconsin was a collective pest on the defensive end. Hughes snagged a career-high six steals out of UW's nine total thefts. Meanwhile, Marcus Landry contested every shot inside, getting credit for two of Wisconsin's five blocked shots. [box score]

Landry should have been credited for even more blocks as well. He had two gems versus Shaun Pruitt alone. On the first, Landry was reading Pruitt all the way as help defense and jumped on a Pruitt shot fake. But he put his fast-twitch muscle fiber to work to immediately stuff Pruitt on his second jump. Then you had the second-half block from behind where Landry's hand pinned the ball between the rim and backboard on Pruitt's dunk attempt.

At the same time, it was painfully evident that Landry is destined to be a post player for life. With just under ten minutes left in the first half, Illinois cranked up the man-to-man pressure two full notches. Give them credit. But the Illini were overplaying so aggressively that Landry's defender left the entire wing and baseline area open for a drive. But Landry just couldn't pull the trigger and the offense continued to stagnate. I hate that feeling, yelling at a player to do something through the television screen.

Luckily, UW now has a workhouse in Brian Butch to mop up rebounds and press the issue inside. He and Landry make a fine duo in the paint. The slimmer Polar Bear is doing everything a fifth-year senior should be doing. And if Hughes continues to play under control, even I might get optimistic for this team. That is saying something.

The team made the necessary adjustments in the turnover department, with only two in the first half and nine in all. And thus, things are now right with Illinois at the Kohl Center. That particular ornament is back in one piece above the fireplace.

After both my grandparents had passed, my dad took the ceramic horse and buggy back to our house, to put on our mantle. That's the funny thing about Harley: even though he's not so pretty, it feels good to see him up on the mantle.

: : :

-Wow. And you thought Bennett-ball was bad.
-Could Kenny George [pic] have tipped in a few of those misses? Watching him play is both painful and amazing, at the same time, as Chris West points out.

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